Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

6 top tips on…using ‘to-do’ lists to create a simpler, clearer life


Ever written a to-do list?

You’d be pretty unusual if you hadn’t.

It’s one of my favourite things – who doesn’t love the little dopamine buzz of crossing something off a list? – but my own to-do list style has evolved and changed over time. I’ve tried all kinds of styles and tricks, and reviewed some of the many many ways of using to-do lists until I’ve found the one that works for me. And I’ll change that if a better idea comes along.

For example, I always used a notebook and paper until I discovered Scrivener, a tool created for writers, but which works brilliantly for holding projects or multiple lists. On the other hand, I still frequently refer back to my dogeared copy of the bible of organisation, Getting Things Done by David Allen, which I highly recommend if you’re interested in a more organised and productive life.

I’m a bit of a list-ninja (multiple checklists anyone?), but thought I’d outline the key principles behind all the styles of list I’ve experimented with. I hope these tips help you to simplify your life and lists, and create a more productive life for you. I would LOVE you to share your own ‘to-do list tips’ in the comments below – I’m always open to trying new things!

1. Be clear, be specific. Ensure every item on your to-do list is an action that can be completed.  Avoid vague statements that are just the name of the project, or person. Write what it is you need to do, so that when it comes to using the list, all you have to do is complete the action, rather than brainstorming what the next action is. For example, instead of ‘holiday’, write ‘check I can have the week of the 7th July off work’ etc.

2. Ensure everything you need to do is gathered in one place – but have more than one category on your list if it helps. I have a daily to-do list containing the actions for that day, but I also have a list for each ‘big’ project I am doing, so I know what the next step is. But everything is in the same Scrivener file. Avoid having actions scattered throughout a notebook or digital devices – this makes it very easy to miss things. If you write actions down in a meeting, transfer these onto a master list once you are done. At the least, make sure you highlight actions in your meeting notes to differentiate them from general notes.

3. Be clear about the difference between your own actions and more ‘passive’ list items, where you are waiting for someone else to do something. These are really better as reminders in your calendar, telling you when the other person’s action is due. Alternatively, you can create a separate column containing just these items (yes, I have a ‘waiting for’ list). Otherwise, they become a psychological weight as you can’t tick them off, but equally, you can’t do anything about them.

4. Use your diary. As well as noting passive items, use your diary to ‘store’ longer term actions – don’t have something on your to-do list AND in your diary unless it’s actually happening that day. Otherwise you will feel as if you have a lot more to do than necessary.

5. Build in flexibility. Make sure you know approximately how long each action will take, and on your daily to-do list, put down items that take you to approximately 15-20% under the time you need.  So, for example, if you have eight hours in your working day, only write on your day’s to-do list enough items to fill six of those hours. Some activities will take more time than you think, and you will also have unplanned interruptions, emergencies, maybe even the odd unexpected coffee with a friend. Make life easier by not planning up to or above the hours in the day – it’s always depressing when you have only completed one item on your day’s to do list and it’s time to go home or to bed.

6.  Prioritise.  Perhaps the most important tip. Spend 5-10 minutes at the end of the day deciding on items for the next day, but go further, and number these in the order you will approach them. Put an easier/quicker action in between longer ones, to give you the satisfaction of completing things. But don’t put all the easy things first!

 Agree? Disagree?

What are the key principles behind your own to-do list? How do you keep sane and productive?
Share your ideas and thoughts in the comments below.

18 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Caroline Leon September 2, 2014, 7:07 am

    Thanks for this great post Ellen, I thought that I was a pro when it came to making lists but now I can see why I sometimes get overwhelmed, having several lists and skipping on working out the time things will take is definitely where I am going wrong! Time to re-write my list methinks!
    Caroline Leon recently posted…Bridging the gapMy Profile

    • Ellen September 2, 2014, 2:14 pm

      Thanks! It’s true – I am the mistress of lists, but just yesterday I found myself a bit adrift as I’d let myself put things in a couple of different places. Putting them all back in one place and then thinking: ‘What’s the next action?’ is the best way for me to clarify my thinking and re-prioritise. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Ash September 2, 2014, 8:42 pm

    I’ve tried a combination of these productivity tips, though I’ve let things slip in the past few weeks and it really shows! I’m just trying to get back to some sort of order in my life, starting by writing a daily action plan with approximate timings. One thing to note, is that I grossly overestimate on paper what I can achieve in a day, so your tip about flexibility makes sense. GTD did not work for me so well, as I got so confused by the whole system and keeping on top of things – it all fell into chaos in the end… Simple is better.
    Great blog and website by the way :)

    • Ellen September 3, 2014, 6:23 am

      Thanks Ash! I think GTD definitely intimidates some people – you have to make it work for you. For example, I started off with the ’43 folders’ but I got rid of them fairly quickly – and now I’m travelling all the time, I’m glad I did! You might like the Inbox Zero post though if you want another simplified – but really useful! – part of the GTD system:

  • Alex Fradera September 18, 2014, 1:22 pm

    Although my master lists of projects and to-do’s are all electronic, I find it immensely useful to write out by hand everything I want on today’s radar (or tomorrow’s, if I’m being organised). Something about having a simple, uncluttered sheet with a doable set of tasks is very good for my focus!

    • Ellen September 18, 2014, 3:21 pm

      It’s true that there’s something about a notebook and paper that’s very satisfying…especially the crossing things off! I’m using Scrivener these days and I love it for holding a master list and sub lists, and checklists – checklists! – all in one place. Thanks Alex!

  • Jules September 18, 2014, 1:40 pm

    This is clear and beautifully put, nailed it again Ellen :-)
    I do find the most difficult thing is not writing a million lists when a well formatted master list will do the job!
    I also find a ‘done’ list at the end of each day helps me feel better about life in general…
    Jules recently posted…The Yoga of YOUMy Profile

    • Ellen September 18, 2014, 3:22 pm

      Thanks Jules, great point about the ‘done’ list – maybe that’s one of the reasons a paper list can be quite satisfying because the ‘crossed off’ item still stays on the list, whereas in electronic land it just…disappears!

  • Mike Huiwitz September 24, 2014, 4:54 pm

    Yep. Being clear and specific does the trick.
    Mike Huiwitz recently posted…The Revelation EffectMy Profile

    • Ellen September 26, 2014, 6:15 pm

      Definitely – it’s so easy to be vague though, it’s definitely a discipline…

  • Ele May 16, 2016, 5:18 pm

    I need to be better organized Ellen…that’s clear after reading this. And paper is the way to go for me. As a recovering procrastinator all I can say is I’ll get to it!!!
    Ele recently posted…4 Ways You’re Ruining Your Life Even When You Think You’re NotMy Profile

    • Ellen May 31, 2016, 6:30 am

      Ha, I think if your style works for you Elle, then there’s no need to change :-) But yes, I find paper can be super helpful for certain things. There’s nothing like a good mind map for example!

  • Debbie L Hampton May 16, 2016, 9:28 pm

    Great suggestions, Ellen. I’m big on lists – especially since my brain injury. There’s just something so satisfying about checking an item off. :)
    Debbie L Hampton recently posted…When You’ve Hit Rock Bottom, There’s Nowhere To Go But UpMy Profile

    • Ellen May 31, 2016, 6:32 am

      Oh yes, I agree! That’s one of the best things about paper, seeing each item that you’ve done – deleting them from a computer based list just isn’t the same!

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh May 17, 2016, 12:30 am

    These are great tips, Ellen. I like the idea of being specific about items on your TO DO list. I’ve tried a number of different ways and still use a phone app which seems to work for me. Spending time organizing for the next day is a good one as well and something I will put into practice more often.
    Cathy Taughinbaugh recently posted…How Naloxone Can Help Save Lives: Meet Pat AussemMy Profile

    • Ellen May 31, 2016, 6:36 am

      Thanks Cathy. Yes, sometimes I realise I have put something a bit vague, like ‘course’ and it’s like putting an elephant on my list – much more helpful to write ‘write lesson 1’ or ‘check references for course’ etc. I think you’re right about planning for the next day too – it saves a lot of time.

  • Sandra Pawula May 17, 2016, 5:03 am


    What a brilliant idea to use Scrivener for your lists. i do use it to hold all my writing and love it for that purpose.

    I’ve never found a good to-do list system for me because I can’t sustain one. I have big gaps in my to-do list creation! I’m lucky, at the moment, I don’t have so many to-dos so I used a paper agenda and I like having everything in one place.

    Thanks for the reminder to make my list tonight for tomorrow. I’ll do that right now and maybe that will get me back into the stream!
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Come Home to LoveMy Profile

    • Ellen May 31, 2016, 6:38 am

      Yes, I *love* Scrivener! I started using it for lists and it’s been brilliant – I can have lots of different categories but still have them all in one place.

      Hope your list writing for tomorrow went well :-)

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